Sunday, February 1, 2004

Panthers a team we can love

Wall Street can have New England. The rest of us will root for Carolina

HOUSTON - I hope the Carolina Panthers win tonight. I hope quarterback Jake Delhomme throws a last-play touchdown pass to wide receiver Steve Smith, the way he did in the playoffs at St. Louis. A great thing about sports is, it brings together people of such different backgrounds and temperaments, you wonder how they inhabit the same planet.

Business doesn't do this. Politics doesn't. Farmers will never sell pork futures. Bill Gates will never wait tables. Only sports and war offer this sort of hopeful human merger.

Delhomme lives in a bayou town in Louisiana, population not many. Smith grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Delhomme is happy when people pronounce his name right. It's Duh-Loam. Smith has no patience for people who don't recognize his talent.

Delhomme spent Super Bowl week holed up in meeting rooms, watching game tape. Smith got stuck at a tollbooth without the proper change. "In Charlotte, we don't have tollbooths," Smith explained.

He was out looking for a replacement for his cell phone, which he had lost. The toll was $1.25. Smith had two quarters in his pocket. "There were five or six cars honking and they were a little mad, and that Southern hospitality went out the window. I had to go to a few cars before I got some change."

Delhomme actually said of New England quarterback Tom Brady, "I'd love to be a guy like him one day." When someone asked Smith if he had "broken out" in the postseason, Smith shook his head and sneered.

"I'm fourth in the (NFC)" in catches, he said. "You just haven't seen me yet. That is your fault, not my fault. In college, I led the nation in yards after catch. I am not doing anything different. I did not wake up and say, 'Hey, let's be a receiver today.' "

Whether you appreciate that sort of upfront-and-naked, Chad Johnson confidence is a matter of taste. Regardless, Smith and Delhomme - and every other Panther interviewed this week, from the reformed sportswriter general manager Marty Hurney to the clowning, say-anything defensive lineman Brentson Buckner - served up a refreshing absence of self-importance.

Panthers owner Jerry Richardson paid for 550 Panthers employees' trips here, for everyone from maintenance workers to kitchen help: chartered plane flights, upscale hotel rooms, game tickets, the whole 100 yards.

The Patriots, by contrast, project a corporate smugness. Their coach is a prep-school grad, a Little Ivy Leaguer who scored 1,400 on his SATs. Bill Belichick is better at dealing with the unwashed proletariat than he was when he coached the Cleveland Browns. But intentionally or not, he still offers a condescending, I'm-smarter-than-you face. C'mon, Bill. You're a football coach.

He's ably assisted by Scott Pioli, New England's vice president of player personnel. Pioli had this to say, when asked about hiring football players:

"What we believe philosophically is you have to build an organization that fits the attitudes, personalities and philosophies of the people who are in the leadership group."

Ya don't say.

I prefer Steve Smith's analysis:

"Nobody wants to chill with a loser."

So here's to the Panthers, Everyguy's team. They probably won't win, which is too bad. The Panthers aren't as good as New England. Their coach, John Fox, isn't going to out-fox Belichick. New England's best players - Brady, Ty Law, Willie McGinest - are doing this for the second time. They won't be overwhelmed. The Patriots have a pressure-proof kicker, Adam Vinatieri, who has already won one Super Bowl.

Neither team wants its QB to win the game. But Brady is more capable of it than Delhomme. Brady plays the short-passing game well enough to be compared to Joe Montana. Belichick's scheming blew tape-watching nerd Peyton Manning's mind two weeks ago. There's no reason to think Belichick can't do the same to Delhomme.

Carolina's best hope is its dominant front four will give Brady the shakes, and/or the Panthers get ahead early and squeeze New England, boa-like, with their formidable running game.

My friend Mark Purdy, a columnist in San Jose, Calif., remembers seeing Jake Delhomme go 13-for-36 with three interceptions while Delhomme was the QB at Louisiana-Lafayette, against a San Jose State team that won three games all year. How do you pick a guy like that, in a game like this?

Patriots, 19-13.



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